Dear Still Water Friends,
Here in the oak woodlands of Northern California we are having the first glimpses of the promise of fall: the slanting light has turned golden, the mornings are crisp and you can feel both the flora and fauna holding their collective breath for the coming of the rains. I am filled with energy like the squirrels and yellow jackets, delirious with the harvest and frenzied in preparation for winter. I love the aliveness that comes with it all and the reassurance that I am, indeed, an integral albeit infinitesimal part of the whole…I BELONG.
It has taken a lifetime to settle into the enjoyment of fall changes. I’ve spent most of my life trying to find a way for my authentic self to fit in. I’ve waffled in-between rebellion against and resentment of cultural norms and resting in just accepting who I am under all the weeds.
It was a curious day in 1995 when I first encountered Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh), I’d never been witness to a presence like his and the slow calm that descended over me was, well, shocking. I quickly signed up for a retreat where I was introduced to a community that, together, was striving for goodness. I was smitten.
As a small child, I grew up in an apartment complex, the only child of the 9 adult residents and I wandered around all the apartments and in fact the surrounding city block, with a solid sense of community and belonging. And after moving away at age 10, I longed for community ever after. For me, rather than the nuclear family, my refuge was far extended.
How I ever got interested in meditation I cannot remember. What I do remember is that “It never worked,”whatever that meant. But by 1995 I felt ready for a bit deeper dive. Little by little over the years my understanding grew of what part meditation had on a path, and the path itself began to be the intrigue, and eventually became the container for my life rather than an aspect of it. I felt held by the community and guided by the precepts. As for the calming and stopping the mind, well that was another matter.
Raised in the shadow of WWII, in a working class Jewish family cut off from their Eastern European roots, and hiding from the ghosts left behind in the massacres of the 1880’s, our family was all about making it month to month. Spirituality was scorned and an inner life was something to be avoided at all costs.
So it was that meditation became my doorway to explore myself in a way that was quite fascinating. While I wasn’t able to “make progress” in calming my mind, I did learn a pile about what made me tick, more specifically what made me, and those around me, suffer. Yet there was ever present a feeling that I was deficient, not able to “accomplish” what it seemed that others around me could do. So I kept quiet, feeling a bit like an impostor, yearning to belong to this community that was so rich and nourishing. My path became a self-improvement project, on top of my profession as a psychotherapist providing that kind of container for others. OY!
Little by little the gentle teachings of Thay sank in. Glimpses of well -being became more frequent. But it wasn’t until I was introduced to neuroscience that I began to understand just why I’d had such trouble creating an interior calm. Putting neuroscience glasses on to our Plum Village practices, understanding trauma (in my case intergenerational trauma) and human physiology, helped me to make sense of my impostor self. In fact, seeing through this neuroscience lens made me see that, in fact, there was nothing wrong with me, AND that I could tailor my practice to serve me better. I began to enjoy following my breath, I was able to make wiser choices through a more compassionate understanding toward myself.
Rather than seeing this neuroscience as an adjunct to practice, it helped me see the innate wisdom that our teacher brought to renewing a Buddhism that had become disconnected from the people suffering. In this transformation was birthed an engaged Buddhism creating a lifeboat for himself and his vast number of students during the tumultuous years of his youth. Rather than reducing the practice to explainable science, these new glasses opened my eyes to the miraculous web of life that, as he said, is always in and around us.
Given the cascade of catastrophic circumstances we all now live in, there seems to be a hunger for deepening our understanding of our predicament, and how might we find a lifeboat to calmer waters. I offer this perspective as a way to more deeply appreciate and embody our practice. It is a language of our times, another perspective to add to a collection. It is out of this perspective that EMBRACE Sangha has been offering study groups to the Plum Village Community. I look forward to joining you on the 14th to bring a taste of this perspective to those new to it, and a few moments of refreshment to those already familiar.
Below is an excerpt from Jo-ann’s book, Unshakeable: Trauma Informed Mindfulness for Collective Awakening, that will be released by Parallax Press in November. Jo-ann and other teachers will be offering a retreat in Richmond, Virginia, on October 26-29 with the theme: Healing Through Play — Trauma-informed Mindfulness and Expressive Arts.
Excerpt from Chapter 1, Unshakeable: Trauma Informed Mindfulness for Collective Awakening, Jo-ann Rosen, Parallax Press, Fall 2023
Originally, my mission for this book was to infuse the Plum Village lineage with what has become known as a “trauma-sensitive” perspective: to offer the practice in a way that helps heal our own past trauma. As I researched the topic, I quickly began to see that the very underpinnings of our lineage, born out of centuries of occupation, violence, and war in Vietnam, was itself a trauma-sensitive renewal of a Buddhism that had lost touch with its ancient aspiration. Reading about his early years as a monk, I could see that Thich Nhat Hanh was using his own experience of encountering trauma and developing resilience to craft a practice made for extremely difficult times. Although he was a voracious scholar, and surely he had some foundation in Buddhist psychology from his monastic studies, much of the practice he developed was rooted in his own personal experiences and his need to manage the seemingly unbearable stresses surrounding his life. In the midst of devastation and destruction, he began to develop a path that could help to heal and, to some extent, prevent the psychological and spiritual wounds in the sea of fire that was Vietnam throughout his life. The circumstances, although potentially devastating, were a living laboratory in which to renew and update a Buddhism that could speak to and meet the needs of the population he so dearly loved. Thich Nhat Hanh was convinced that a renewed Buddhism could be of infinite benefit to the people. With an uncanny intuition of how to keep a nervous system balanced; how to rebalance it when dysregulated; and most importantly, how to maintain hope, joyful determination, and purpose, Thay developed an approach to practice that could keep people afloat and help them find those delights that made life worth living. If we look through a more modern psychological and scientific lens, we might say Thich Nhat Hanh was a master of nervous system self-regulation. As we will see in Chapter 2, self-regulation occurs when we are overwhelmed by the nervous system but find a way to relax into knowing that it’s okay, we can handle it. Self-regulation is finding a place of calm clarity inside that can somehow find the strength to manage. Thay calls this our true home.
I have arrived
I am HOME
in the here
and in the now
I am solid,
I am free,
in the ultimate
… Home is a place where we are not carried away by circumstance, where the nervous system acts as an integrated whole, where our body is calm, where we are able to direct our attention over a sustained period and see things as they are. This is the miracle of what is termed mindfulness. From this insight comes the knowledge of how to proceed, felt deeply in every cell. Finding home is the first step: a place of calm and safety, unshakeable. Although he did not use scientific language to describe his approach to Buddhism, Thich Nhat Hanh had an openness to experiment and see how practices actually worked. In addition to developing a personal healing practice, he ingeniously constructed a path that also incorporated, at its core, the healing elements of belonging to a community—a notion that is just now being recognized as essential to healing in the world of trauma research. His vision for a renewed Buddhism transcended individual self-regulation to strive for collective regulation: he saw the sangha, or community of practice, as a living organism itself, an organism that has its own potential for awakening.
Studying how Thich Nhat Hanh began to renew the efforts for a truly engaged Buddhist practice, one accessible by ordinary people in ordinary—and extraordinary—circumstances, can help inspire and point the way for us to continue in this process for the years to come. First, let’s look at the circumstances surrounding his beginnings, to understand the scope of devastation that was the birthplace of this lineage. Along the way, we can see, step by step, how the Plum Village practice emerged and evolved into what it is today: a practice that preserves and heals the individual, a practice that develops community, and a practice that offers the wisdom of community to the world.